When the PM goes to the country...

THE SUNDAY WALK; The village of Ellesborough is the start for a walk around Chequers, the Prime Minister's country estate, nestling among the peaceful Chiltern Hills

Ellesborough in Buckinghamshire shows signs of having seen better days. The Butler's Cross village shop has closed after 140 years of trading and the parish council minutes on the public notice board record recent vandalism. The good news is that the villagers are safeguarding the delightful country footpaths running through the Chequers estate by appointing a Footpath Monitor.

After catching up on local news at the Russell Arms I set off towards the church, which rises like a castle from the trees. Once round the bend the pavement leaves the road to run uphill past St Paul's and St Peter's Cottages into Ellesborough churchyard.

At once I recognised the backdrop for many a Sunday photo-call. Harold Macmillan brought President Eisenhower to morning service a week before the 1959 election was called. Margaret Thatcher worshipped here during the Falklands war, and John Major came with his wife, Norma, on his first Christmas Day as PM. Opposite is a back entrance to Chequers with an inviting footpath sign, but it would be a mistake to be tempted. The public footpath soon turns off into a field. I took the better option behind the bus stop to a kissing gate and up the worn path across the sloping field.

The way continues in the same direction beyond a stile in the band of trees. To the left is Beacon Hill and as the path begins to curve back towards the fence on the left there is a view west over wooded Ellesborough Warren. Soon after a stile and steps I reached open ground and kept forward to join a path curving through the trees ahead.

Here, where primroses were beginning to appear, I crossed the western driveway to Chequers and beyond a stile followed the side of Whorley Wood to join the Ridgeway. The national trail took me through a kissing gate for a first view of Chequers in the sheltered fold of the Chiltern Hills.

By turning right along the side of Maple Wood I became more aware of the Elizabethan manor's sheltered position. Rising above the house is Coombe Hill, the highest point in the Chilterns, from where you can see seven counties.

In 1921, when Lord Lee gave his home as a country residence for the Prime Minister, he wrote: "... the better the health of our rulers the more sanely they will rule, and the inducement to spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills and woods will, it is hoped, benefit the nation as well as its chosen leaders."

But Chequers has long had a government connection and been at the centre of the nation's affairs. The earlier 12th-century house belonged to an Exchequer official whose family took the name "de Chekers". In the new Tudor house Lady Mary Grey, Lady Jane's sister, was held prisoner for two years.

Soon after the path turned south I went left over a broken stile. From here the Ridgeway runs gently downhill to kissing gates each side of the main driveway now known as Victory Avenue. Churchill presented the beech trees in 1955 in memory of his "momentous days" at Chequers.

Here you are inside the main gate with a security camera following your progress. The Ridgeway continues over a field and a road into a wood. At a four-way junction I abandoned the national trail to go left on a path which runs north near the edge of the wood. At a road I turned left to a T-junction to pass by the Chequers side entrance. The footpath continues opposite the lodge but at a second divide one must go down to the left on a path paved with tree roots. A lane runs out of the wood between Coombe Hill Farm Cottage and the long building of Coombe Hill Farm back to the road. By going right along the road in front of the farmhouse I found the start of a pavement running gently down to Butler's Cross with a fine view of Ellesborough Church on the hill.

Norma Major, who has come to love Chequers enough to write its history, says that the house holds many happy memories including family milestones such as her silver wedding anniversary. Whatever happens on 1 May, John and Norma Major are going back. By convention the outgoing Prime Minister is offered the use of Chequers for the first few days out of power.

t Use OS Explorer 2, Chiltern Hills North map. Ellesborough is 1 1/2 miles west of Wendover on Chiltern Railways' Marylebone-Aylesbury line. (At present the main road from Wendover is closed to through traffic and therefore pleasant for walkers.) Bus 323 (325 Sundays) runs from Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (Bucks travel hotline 0345 382000). A version of this walk appears in "25 Walks - The Chilterns" by Leigh Hatts (the Stationery Office Books; pounds 8.50).

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